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Warhol Effect: Can Leonardo’s Strange Bedfellow Make Christie’s Bidders Salivate for “Salvator Mundi”?

It seems Christie’s couldn’t resist the chance to pair Leonardo da Vinci‘s Jesus with one (or, more accurately, 60) by art-market megastar Andy Warhol, whose 32-foot-long “Sixty Last Suppers” (riffing on the Italian Renaissance master’s famous take on that subject) is being offered at the same Nov. 15 Contemporary auction as the incongruous interloper, “Salvator Mundi.”

The Warhol’s presale estimate is half of Leonardo’s:

Warhol, “Sixty Last Suppers,” 1986
Presale estimate: in the region of $50 million

Not previously known for his old-masters expertise, Loic Gouzer, Christie’s chairman for Post-War and Contemporary Art, introduced “Salvator Mundi” last week to the camera-clicking press and touted Leonardo as “the most important artist of all time.” (I think we can come up with other contenders.)

The rarity of what Christie’s is promoting as the last Leonardo painting in private hands (barring another discovery, like this less accepted 2013 find) is undisputed. But its bizarre placement in a contemporary art sale may bespeak more than an opportunistic attempt to bring it to the attention of the market’s most high-stakes players.

Gouzer had this to say about the supposed Leonardo/Warhol connection:

Despite being created approximately 500 years ago, the work of Leonardo is just as influential to the art that is being created today as it was in the 15th and 16th centuries. We felt that offering this painting within the context of our Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale is a testament to the enduring relevance of this picture [emphasis added].

It might also be a “testament” to the discernment of old masters collectors. Those who operate at the top of that market are usually connoisseurs or receive expert advice from those who are. In this field, condition counts, as does provenance. But for trophy-hunting contemporary art collectors, a text-book artist’s illustrious name may mean more than this work’s less savory attributes—the subject’s marred (now restored) face and the painting’s unseemly notoriety as the subject of a court battle between megabucks art-market players whose idea of “art appreciation” is as much financial as aesthetic.

Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal last week reported on the latest litigious chapter in the Leonardo’s convoluted path from its auction sale for £45 in 1958 to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev‘s purchase a few years ago for a reported $127.5 million. The auctioneers now hope the painting will fetch “in the region of $100 million.” It’s backed by a guarantee for an undisclosed amount to the consignor, who was reported by Crow to be Rybolovlev.

That Christie’s is courting non-traditional megabucks buyers, beyond the relatively small universe of avid old-master collectors, was explicitly acknowledged by the auction house’s spokesperson in a telephone interview with the San Francisco Chronicle‘s art critic, Charles Desmarais. He asked about the decision to ship the painting to his city, as part of its tour to whet the appetites of potential buyers.

Desmarais wrote:

The spokeswoman said the work is being shown in San Francisco [after Hong Kong and before London] because interest in the sale will be “beyond art collectors.” She described potential buyers as “car collectors, science collectors—people who are interested in the rarest, most significant objects.”

“San Francisco is the place where those people will be,” she said.

For the Silicon Valley mogul who has everything and is accustomed to holding wondrous devices that fit in the palm of the hand, the symbolism of the magical crystal orb representing the world may seem particularly apt:

Leonardo da Vinci, “Salvator Mundi,” c. 1500, private collection

I was in the Christie’s salesroom in November 1994 when the current auction record for Leonardo ($30.8 million) was set by a techie—the 39-year old Bill Gates, purchaser of the Codex Leicester—a scientific manuscript that was then known as the Codex Hammer (for the late industrialist Armand Hammer).

Maybe they should add Seattle to the Leonardo’s itinerary.

an ArtsJournal blog